Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, March 27, 2017

Breaking Up the Liberal City Part 1

Ross Douthat has written a column provocatively titled "Break Up the Liberal City." Douthat's actual proposals are comparatively modest, and basically involve moving certain institutions (universities, government bureaucracies) out of big cities. I want to make a few observations about this. I'll write a separate post about economics and culture, this post is meant to give a little context to frame the issue.

First, I think it's important to remember that on the whole cities on the east coast are crushingly poor. I think Douthat imagines New York City to be an elite place, but in fact New York City has fewer high school graduates per capita, a lower median household income, and a much higher poverty rate than the U.S. as a whole (20.6% vs. 13.5%). In fairness, per capita income is a bit higher in NYC than in the U.S. as a whole ($33,000 vs. $29,000), although still lower than in New York State as a whole. Boston is a bit richer and better-educated than New York City, but its poverty rate (21.5%) is even higher than New York's.

And these are probably the two big cities on the east coast with the best claim to be "elite" or "thriving" (setting aside the District of Columbia). Yale might be one of the elite institutions that Douthat has in mind, but New Haven is far poorer than the cities I've mentioned, with a per capita income more than $5,000 below the national average and a poverty rate of 26.6%. I would cite the abysmal numbers for Philadelphia and Baltimore, but I think even Douthat would hesitate to strip big employers out of those cities.

Second, our elite universities are actually widely dispersed, as Matt Yglesias observed:
The big exception, of course, is Boston, but as I've pointed out Boston has a painfully high poverty rate, and that would certainly not be improved by moving its universities out into the heartland. By the way, if you compare Boston to Seattle, you will find that Seattle is vastly richer and better-educated, and its poverty rate is far lower than Boston's (in fact, it is right at the national average of 13.5%).

So when you think of elite institutions that Douthat wants to move out of big cities, maybe you shouldn't be picturing Harvard or Yale, but rather the University of Washington. But maybe not, maybe Douthat is getting at something else, which will have to wait for a future post.


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